My Scottish Gin Job

Neil Stewart, Orkney Distilling.

Published: 3rd July 2020

The Scottish Gin industry is a big employer, with employment opportunities covering all types of roles; distillers, brand ambassadors, maintenance engineers, graphic designers, accountants, drivers – the list is long and varied. Some distilleries have large teams of people covering many different jobs but for some of the smaller distilleries, it’s just a few people doing pretty much everything. In My Scottish Gin Job, we meet some of the people working in the industry and learn more about their role, their background and what Scottish Gin means to them. 

Orkney Distilling, the producers of the Kirkjuvagr range of Scottish Gin expressions, officially opened the doors of their distillery and visitor experience in July 2018. Overlooking the historic harbour front of Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, the business has created a number of roles within the distillery. In this feature, we meet Business Development Manager Neil Stewart to learn more about what his role involves and what drew him to Orkney Distilling.

What is your name and what is your background?

My name is Neil Stewart.  I currently work with Orkney Distilling Ltd as a Business Development Manager. 

My background is very much focused in the food & drink sector. In the mid 2000’s I took up a position with the Heathmount Hotel in Inverness. The bar at the hotel is a bit of an Inverness institution and always ahead of the game – even back then the gin offering was varied, stocking many brands that weren’t common place in the trade at the time. After several happy years, I moved on to Rocpool Restaurant. Rocpool, under the passionate “hands-on” owner Steven Devlin, generally operate on another level in the Inverness restaurant scene, from the basics to the finer details, from top to bottom – it makes you better at what you do and it’s a business that you come to love, whether an employee or customer.  

A great opportunity arose shortly after with Quintelle Ltd in the Black Isle. Operating (at the time) The Dores Inn and The Storehouse Restaurant, going between the 2 businesses, as well as having some focus on growing the outside catering and events side of the business, was too much of an opportunity to pass up. One of the many sides to the business was a very popular Farm Shop & Deli. My gin journey really went to another level here. This was an era where the dedicated Off-Licenses were closing in the Highlands, supermarket buying teams were not quite as “on it” as they are now perhaps, and the gin market was just about to explode – a huge gap in the market was being created before our eyes and we were ready to step in. I was very lucky, the business owners Quintin and Michelle were hugely supportive, but also trusted my personal judgement and gave me a massive degree of freedom to push the business down various routes. Before we knew it, we had a gin corner stocking over 200 gins and 70 plus tonics – not too bad for a little shop off the A9 in the middle of the Highlands! We ran our first Gin Tasting evening to a sold-out crowd of 75. Such was the success of these nights, we soon had a waiting list of brands wanting to sponsor tasting nights and be able to talk one-to-one with an excellent gin crowd.

After 8 fantastic years on the Black Isle, a move (even further) North came with a new role at the Dunnet Bay Distillery and a chance to work with Martin and Claire Murray’s fantastic Holy Grass Vodka and Rock Rose Gin brands. A brief return into the daily operational side of hospitality came through the hugely busy Whisky Bar at The Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness before being drawn (even (“further”) further) North to the Orkney Distillery in January of this year.

What do you do as Business Development Manager?

It’s a fairly all-encompassing role.  

I work directly with various contacts – whether that is wholesalers, retailers, bars, restaurants, hotels, event companies, bloggers, influencers as well as the end buyer – the general public! There is a huge element of building relationships at every stage where possible. 

The skill set is a fairly diverse one… a project management mindset is needed for things like event planning, retail promotions, masterclass tastings and venue engagements like cocktail menu takeovers.

Digital media also plays a massive role. From planning and implementing new content to replying to comments and queries, there is always something that needs attention on our Social Media channels.  

You are constantly taken in different directions with new engagements or opportunities so it’s important to maintain focus on existing projects that still need attention as well as getting your teeth into something new. With the age we live in where everybody is “online” all day and the way people work in our industry, it has a bit of a 24 hour feel to it – you may have an order from a bar sitting in your Whats App, a question on your Facebook messenger from a gin blogger and a text from an event organiser so it is important to be constantly collating all information. 

What led you to Orkney Distilling?

I found myself looking to get back into the BDM/events side of the industry.

In my time at The Storehouse one of the brands we had listed was Kirkjuvagr Gin. In fact, if I remember correctly, we were the first retailer outside of Orkney to carry the brand. It was somewhat an “easy sale” for myself and the team – the liquid, the provenance and the brand look were all excellent. I’m a big believer in first impressions in business. The first time I met Stephen and Aly you knew they were people you would enjoy working with, even then from the perspective of promoting the brand from a retail and events point of view. Fast forward a few years and the company was looking to take somebody on in this role and I was looking for a new challenge.   

What does a typical day look like?

There isn’t really a typical day. I am based in Inverness so if I am working from home I have a bit of a to do list to tick-off each day, essentially making sure you’re on top of emails, calls and messages. There is a lot of “chasing up” to be done when you’re working with various operators.  

If I am “on the road”, I am trying to make the best use of my time whilst away, whether that is calling in on existing contacts or visiting potential new stockists. We work in a people industry – although we are working in a digital age, nothing can replace catching up face to face over a coffee.

You have to keep a constantly open mind regarding new opportunities. A creative mind helps but ultimately sometimes the next brand engagement can come from the most chance meeting or where you least expect it. 

What’s the best part of your job?

Generally speaking I would say I am very lucky to work with a brand that I believe in. Trying to help build the brand and present our products to more people and in different ways is a really exciting challenge.

Collaboration forms a really interesting aspect of my job, working with others towards a mutually beneficial goal where you can bounce ideas off one another. Every day there is something new to learn! 

In terms of specifics, I really enjoy working with bartenders directly. Bartender training sessions are always really enjoyable and give you a chance to find common ground and throw some really interesting ideas around. You’re learning about their particular business, what they need and look for whilst they are learning how to “sell” Kirkjuvagr to their customers. Having so many years behind the bar, you do get a feel for what bartenders are looking for. You get a feel for what will help that venue, what their team would like to learn and what support they would benefit from going forward. 

How do you introduce the Orkney Distilling brand to potential new customers?

A lot of it is common sense and really quite simple. Really, for me, it’s communicating and listening.  If I’m talking to someone at a Food & Drink Show or a Gin Festival say, I’ll find out what they normally drink – you can work out very quickly where someone is in terms of gin experience. It is then a case of bringing a suitable product to suit their tastes. We have 5 different gins in our core range so there’s something to cover most tastes. If somebody’s favourite drink is a sweeter gin liqueur with lemonade I’m probably going to put them off the brand with going straight into some neat gin sipping of our 57% Storm Strength expression!

When you’ve got that idea of what they like, then it’s getting them to try what will work best for them and bringing in our company’s USPs that we feel will be of most interest – again there’s no point in reeling off a long spiel about botanicals or distilling techniques with some people where actually some light information about Orkney or the Distillery will actually be of much more interest to them. 

Our 5 core gin expressions are really fun to work with… Kirkjuvagr is a classic London Dry style gin, really well balanced with a real feel of quality throughout. Arkh-Angell is our 57% edition – it’s always great to see people’s reactions to a stronger ABV and the surprise of how smooth a finish it has. Beyla and Harpa both have a nod to the sweeter side of gin without having a false “syrupy” mouth feel and whilst there is still a significant number of consumers that aren’t fully aware of spiced gins, Aurora is a great introduction to this style. 

What’s your most interesting work trip so far?

As I am still relatively new with my current role, I hadn’t managed many trips pre-Covid Lockdown. I would say the most interesting trip I have had through work was when I was with Dunnet Bay Distillery visiting Germany. I love it there. It’s a country I visit fairly regularly to watch football. At the same time, it’s been amazing watching the gin scene grow over the last decade or so and seeing how various friends and contacts that work with gin over there operate.  

In 2019, I was in Hamburg to do a bar-takeover event with the famous Bar DaCaio at the George Hotel. Hamburg has a top-class food and drink scene and this bar acts as a shining example of this. Giovanni Massimino puts a fantastic Italian twist on German hospitality in this incredible venue – every aspect they have got correct, from lighting to music, from food to service, the place is faultless. The standard of menu produced by Sorina Stanici for the event was beyond exceptional and showed off our spirits at a level difficult to match. Seeing the likes of Sorina or the very talented Simone Di Milito working in their natural environment, showing their skills, their creativity, their passion – it’s impossible not to be inspired by this.  

That the night happened in the first place is one of those “right place/right time” moments. I was in Hamburg 6 months earlier, again watching football over a long weekend. I offered to stay in town an extra day and do some work and call into a few places.  The last place on my list for the day was the George Hotel. It was over 30 degrees in the city that day – I had been walking all over the place with a heavy bag full of gin and vodka samples. I was going to watch some 5th division football with a Hamburg-based friend in an hour’s time so needed to head back to the hotel to drop the bag. I remember standing outside and there was a Porsche and a Lamborghini parked at the door – the people sitting out in the garden tables were immaculately turned out. I actually went to walk away thinking it was a visit too much. The bartender side of me still doesn’t like showing up at a venue unannounced, especially one with such a high end feel. An unannounced, (by this point) burnt Scotsman rocking up to try and sell them gin was probably something they weren’t waiting for! I was walking away but something made me turn back. 5 minutes later I have been introduced to Giovanni and the team, sitting in their Campari Lounge rooftop terrace with a complimentary Negroni and bar snacks over-looking the Alster lake. This moment is still for me the absolute embodiment of what Hospitality is all about. After sharing some stories (Gio was previously part of the bar team at Gleneagles), chance would have it that only the week before he had ordered in some of our vodka and that it was to go on the next menu. 

What does Scottish Gin mean to you?

Scottish Gin means a lot of different things to me – it’s a category that provides employment either directly or indirectly to so many amazing people, not only in this country but actually all over the world.  

It’s a celebration of things done right. Showing off some amazing creativity and provenance. With such a strong distilling heritage, Scotland is a very natural home to create brilliant and innovative products.

What’s the plan for 2020?

The plans were to really push the brand on in every way possible, to expand on what we were already doing and hopefully open ourselves to new stockists and engage in more partnerships.

The Lockdown period has put a significant stop to a lot of ideas and plans.  Our industry may not look the same for a number of years in reality so anything that can be done in terms of “virtual” tastings/engagements are to be viewed in a positive light. You have to be as proactive and as positive as possible though – if you’d have said in January that I would be spending the busy summer period talking to contacts about 25 litre drums of hand sanitiser, I wouldn’t have believed you!

You can learn more about Orkney Distilling here.

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